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Wednesday, October 4, 2023


The Octogenarian: my mom made me master the art of learning

Ken's mom

Ken’s mom, Selma, left school after grade six, but dedicated her life to self-education. | Courtesy of Ken Levin

Recently, my son Herschel and I were invited to be the guests on the Friday evening radio interview on Coog Radio.

Nothing controversial is allowed, no religion and no politics — keep it clean.  It’s a problem because I am, by nature, controversial.  But it’s also not a problem because I have this long-standing love affair with the English language.

I managed to squeeze in one political story without mentioning a politician’s  name or political party, although I briefly created noticeable apprehension in my host interviewers when I started that story.

Because of my command of English, we got away with it. So, where does my mom come into the story?

I lost my mom in 1990 due to a brain tumor. We all felt cheated because the women in our family normally live well into their 90s.

When my mom was a girl, she only went to school until sixth grade.

She was pulled out by her mother and grandmother, with love, to learn how to be a homemaker. But she still yearned to learn.

She educated herself by becoming a vociferous reader.  In our family, a gift was almost always a book, and as a child I was dragged to the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Keyworth Avenue regularly.

When my mom died, her bedside table held the ever-present Webster’s Dictionary and a thesaurus. Her walls were covered by bookshelves with oft-referred books, and the tables, chairs and floor held books.

I saw my small, shy, but extremely brave mother stand on the stage of the Lyric Theatre and address a packed house. I saw her do the same thing for the March of Dimes. If you didn’t know her, you would have believed that the diminutive giant you are observing had her doctorate from Vassar.

She taught us what I have passed on to my children.

“If you master the English language and learn history, so as not to repeat the same mistakes, there is nothing in the world that you cannot achieve,” she said.

These last few years, I have lost my sight and was eventually declared legally blind. I have appreciated my mom even more.

I no longer have the thrill of casually picking up a book and settling in to a comfortable spot to read it.  Even newspapers are impossible for me to read, and I have been reading the paper since I could first read 80 years ago.

But the support out there is amazing.  The Veterans Hospital’s Visual Impairment Services Outpatient Rehabilitation program has issued me very specialized glasses for every need, plus other support. The Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, the civilian agency, has coordinated all kinds of help to replace my inability to see.

So what is a blind old man who is functionally deaf and has lost his short-term memory due to a stroke doing going to college full time?

The answer is having a blast.

More than 20 years ago when I was 63 years old, my wife presented me with a son.

That son and I are now students together here sharing four classes this semester. This college go around, my third, I am majoring in political science with a minor in history.

Part of the fun is that a lot of what my fellow students are studying as history, to me, is memory.

This affects my classroom participation, but worse, I can’t keep it out of the papers I submit which makes for some great interplay with my professors.  In fact, only one teacher has ever chastised me for what he calls my “anecdotal comments,” and he has asked me to stick to the textbooks and papers given to read. His loss.

When asked for a secret to long life, I answer truthfully. What I do is wake each morning and question God as to whether we are going to try for another day. Should he be willing to give me enough of those days, I think it would be enjoyable to teach.

Time will tell.

Opinion columnist Ken Levin is a political science senior and may be reached at [email protected]

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